Sgt. 1st Class David E. Metzger dies in Afghanistan at 32

David E. Metzger seemed destined to be a soldier.

“He always had a kind of passion for the military,” said his longtime friend, Rob Casillas, who recalled mock childhood battles in the suburbs of southern San Diego County. “We’d play little war games in the fields near the Mexican border.”

At Mar Vista Senior High School in Imperial Beach, Metzger wore his slacks freshly pressed and his shoes scuff-free, and was careful to stay in shape, his friend recalled.

“He always fit the profile of a soldier,” Casillas said. “He wanted to be like a G.I. Joe, I guess. That was his favorite toy.”

Sgt. 1st Class Metzger, 32, was one of seven Army Special Operations Command soldiers killed in Afghanistan Oct. 26 when the helicopter carrying them crashed in the western province of Badghis. Also killed were three Drug Enforcement Administration agents. Most of those on board, including U.S. and Afghan personnel, survived the crash.

The incident shed light on a side conflict of the Afghanistan war -- the battle against drug traffickers, whose profits provide a major source of funding for insurgents. Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium.

The helicopter crashed as it was extricating forces after a raid targeting a trafficking compound, authorities said. More than a dozen militants were killed in the firefight that preceded the crash, according to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.

U.S. officials called the crash an accident and said it was not the result of hostile fire. The cause remains under investigation but some reports have indicated that the helicopter’s front rotor may have clipped a cliff in the predawn darkness.

Metzger was on his third deployment to Afghanistan. Fellow soldiers lauded his dedication and described him as a strapping, affable comrade who paid close attention to detail.

“He was someone you could count on,” Master Sgt. Javier F. Martinez, the senior enlisted sergeant on Metzger’s team, said by telephone from Afghanistan. “He was someone you’d want there in the heat of battle. You always knew he was watching your back.”

Martinez, also a Californian, was not on the mission because he was away on emergency leave. Metzger assumed his responsibilities, including accounting for personnel and equipment during all phases of the operation.

“He was in the same spot I would have been in, exactly,” said Martinez, who acknowledges a sense of survivor’s guilt. “I would have been there.”

Metzger was born in San Diego on April 7, 1977, and was reared there by his grandmother, Dolores Wallen.

Friends and family recall Metzger as a talented Little League pitcher (he aspired to be a professional baseball player before a knee injury), a skilled boxer and skateboarder, and a gifted artist who delighted in sketching birds that came to his family’s patio for seeds. He and friends camped out, rode dirt bikes in Mexico and learned to surf.

He enlisted in 1996, in part to help support his wife Alicia, who grew up in the same neighborhood, and the couple’s baby boy.

“I didn’t want him to join, I wanted him to go to college,” Wallen said, adding that her grandson called every week from wherever he was posted. “But it was his decision, and I respect that. I just gave him my blessing.”

The Army helped Metzger fulfill his passion to see the world. Stationed for five years in Germany, he served in the Balkans peacekeeping mission. He also traveled throughout Europe on vacations with his family.

Transferred back to Ft. Bragg, N.C., Metzger joined the Army’s elite special forces, graduating as a Green Beret in 2007. His wife worried about the danger but he assured her: “I was born to do this.”

After Metzger’s death, his loved ones noted the irony that he had succumbed in an accident after having survived so many hazardous deployments and flights across the globe. “My first thought was, ‘Not Dave, he’s invincible,’ ” said Alicia Metzger. “He was always escaping death.”

The couple had divorced a few months before Metzger’s death, Alicia said.

In late October, Metzger’s remains were among those of 18 U.S. military personnel met by President Obama at Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base. The media were allowed to witness the event, which was among the first such ceremonies to be open to reporters and photographers since the Pentagon lifted a nearly 20-year ban on coverage of returning war dead.

The president spent private time with Metzger’s family, lauding him and leaving a profound impression.

“I didn’t vote for Obama, but the way he spoke to my son and to me, he made it seem like he really did care,” Alicia Metzger recalled. “It meant a lot to my son. Afterwards he said, ‘I’m so proud of my dad.’ ”

Metzger was buried at Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, after several services celebrating his life.

Survivors include Alicia Metzger and the couple’s two sons, David Jr., 13, and Grant, 2, of Fort Bragg; and his grandmother Dolores Wallen and parents, David Metzger and Lisandra Holstein, of California.

“He died doing what he always wanted to do,” said Wallen. “He wanted his boys to be proud of him.”